May 04, 2008

The intrepid work of late style

I have fond memories of my first meeting with Achille Mizzi at the Grandmaster’s Palace in Valletta early on in 1997. Back then, as a strong team of aspiring writers, we had just created our own literature club at the Junior College, and together with our readings of Neruda, Elouard, Borges, Rimbaud and Garcia Lorca, Achille Mizzi was all the rage. Soiled, threadbare copies of ‘L-Ghar ta’ l-Enimmi’ and ‘Il-Kantiku tad-Demm’, two of his earlier collections, made regular rounds during our meetings. We were budding writers seeking a Maltese poetic model that could hold its very own against any other canon we read into. After the many depressing schooldays eating the crises of the so-called Maltese "Romantics" – a phase I would not wish on any zealous student of literature - we yearned for a robust poetic oeuvre that could restore our faith in a local poetic that did not smack of pseudo. And Achille was our answer.

It was with avid interest, therefore, that I pored over ‘Eklissi Perpetwi’ (Everlasting Eclipse), Achille Mizzi’s latest collection and his seventh volume of verse, with an insightful introduction by Professor Oliver Friggieri. One has to keep one important factor in mind when reading Mizzi within the context of a Maltese literary “tradition”. When Mizzi was producing what eventually became his first book, the 1967 ‘L-Ghar tal-Enimmi’, he was working within a poetic anxiety very different from what Harold Bloom defines as the ‘anxiety of influence’. By that, Bloom meant the contemporary poet’s ordeal of making his own elbow space within a tradition handed over to him as an excess of greatness. Mizzi’s anxiety emerged from a diametrically opposed order: he had to write in the humble and embarrassing knowledge that the local tradition he inherited left him with an overload of work to perform and aeons of literary mileage to cover.

As with his other collections, therefore, ‘Eklissi Perpetwi’ teems with the classical intertexts and motifs of continental poetry that Mizzi drew upon in order to establish a poetic work that could stand on its own – indeed, I believe Mizzi’s work can and should be read in this broader context rather than the restricted tropes of the local tradition. The poem Stamboul is an imagistic work that, in its  combination of sensorial and emotive experience, evokes the experiential state of the eponymous Turkish city itself, that of a historic, and in many ways a contemporary hub of Eastern and Western civilizations. ‘Meta ghad-dell tal-moskea | kahla bl-izmalt | tal-kobalt \ […] wara l-koppli ta gnien is-Sultan, | waqt li hemdu | go ruhi l-ghasafar | u libtu dikment. | Ghafsitni ghommti. | Bhal ghonq li jidjieq hanqitni. |Bhall-Bosfru … | lembut li jaghzel zewg ibhra – | il-bahar tad-dija |mill-bahar | tad-dlam’, Mizzi writes. It is the trademark trope of a stately bard that, through such well-shaped, studied forms has introduced a sense of the mot juste in the Maltese language. It is, moreover, very reminiscent of W.B. Yeats and his great Byzantium poems. ‘Marbles of the dancing floor | break bitter furies of complexity, | fresh images that yet | fresh images beget | that dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea’, writes the self-styled ‘Last of the Romantics’. And indeed, Mizzi’s poetry here performs a calculated and informed break, away  - a misprision, as it were - of the usage of archetypal motifs typical of classical European writing. He is a poet of forms and images, a lyricist of profound respect for the universal/eternal thematics that furnish his contemplations in turn with novel uncertainties and iterative sources of angst.

This brings me to the most striking aspect of ‘Eklissi Perpetwi’: Mizzi’s writing refreshingly harbours a different order of anxiety from the one that informed his endeavour forty years ago. More than any of the preceding collections, this volume entertains an element of what Edward W. Said, in an evocative excursus on Beethoven’s ‘Missa Solemnis’, Visconti’s adaptation of ‘Il Gattopardo’ and Mozart’s ‘Cosi Fan Tutte’ among others, has termed ‘Late Style’.  Poems such as ‘L-Arka ta’ Noe’, ‘Gerit’ and ‘Amnesija’ exhibit an uncanny sense of disruption of structural and thematic order that Said suggests is an ‘artistic lateness’ that involves a nonserene tension, works that tamper irrevocably with the possibility of closure, leaving the reader more perplexed and unsettled than before. Said defines late style as a moment when an artist fully in command of his medium nevertheless abandons communication with the established social order of which he is a part and achieves a contradictory, alienated relationship to it. Late work, therefore, constitutes a form of narrative or poetic or expressive exile.  In the final verses of ‘L-Arka ta’Noe’, a poetic testimony of acquaintance with politicians, noblemen and churchmen, Mizzi writes ‘Imma eqreb lejn Alla m’hemm hadd | fost dawn kollha | […] daqs il-hlejjaq ta’ demm biered | li go l-ilma jziggu | f’dimensjoni ghariba | ghal min twieled minn zaqq ommu.’ This volta in Mizzi’s poem produces a haunting image of nature that is radically estranged from established human order. As a poetic gesture it implicates the persona within a milieu that is not of a mere fantastic/ prophetic nature but is, indeed, radically estranged from, and contemptuous of, the semanticity of convention itself. The element of ‘lateness’ emerges strongly in ‘Amnesija’,where the poet makes a statement about the condition itself: ‘Irqiq irqiq |bhal vertigni jirkibni , | bhal deni, | bhal namur mal-mewt.’ It is a portrait of the artist flirting with the notion of the end through the natural process itself, even as he knows that this process will continue eternally. Late style, Said argues, is the renewed digressions and tremulous forays of creation that occur when art ‘does not abdicate its rights in favour of reality.’ 

This should, indeed, be a basic criterion when gauging the achievement of Mizzi’s latest work. ‘Eklissi Perpetwi’ is, as its title promises, an informed, thorough poetic questioning of the universal, the cosmic and the eternal. It is a ripened poet’s intrepid take on the great elements that circumscribe human existence, in the knowledge that an effective poetry will always require the bold contemplation of their alternatives. 

Mizzi, Achille, Eklissi Perpetwi (Malta:Klabb Kotba Maltin, 2007), 124 pp. 

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